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Case for decentralisation of K-12 education

Writing in hind swaraj in 1909, mahatma Gandhi cited Prof. Aldous Huxley’s definition of education: “That man I think has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will and does with ease and pleasure all the work that as a mechanism it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine with all its parts of equal strength and in smooth working order... whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the fundamental truths of nature... whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience... who has learnt to hate all vileness and to respect others as himself. Such a one and no other, I conceive, has had a liberal education, for he is in harmony with nature. He will make the best of her and she of him.” 

The search for such liberal education continues worldwide, and that in itself is a very encouraging sign of civilizational growth and evolution. 

In this ‘age of accelerations’ and all-encompassing role of ICT (information communication technologies), education institutions particularly schools, have the onerous responsibility to focus on nurturing curiosity, developing creativity and instilling entrepreneurial skills. In this day and age, the greatest assets of youth are the skills of ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘learning to learn’. To these skills, add ‘learning to do’ and ‘learning to be’. It’s important for parents and teachers to bear in mind that today’s school-leavers are entering a highly complex and competitive world in which neglect of moral, ethical and humanistic values has resulted in serious man-made crises like global warming, climate change and air and water pollution among others. The impact of a diminishing-values quotient is being experienced in the shape of escalating violence, wars and civil insurrections. The content and process of education just cannot ignore these developments. The duty of every school leader and teacher is to recognise that every child has the potential to transform into a visionary and creative, exploring, caring and contributing member of society. 

Yet if one asks any alert school principal or teacher, the answer would be ‘this is exactly what we are doing’! But the issue is of focus, measure and magnitude. K-12 education, even in the most well-managed, dynamic schools, is subject to several restrictions imposed by regulatory authorities. The burden of exam board-prescribed curriculums and examinations leave little room for progressive school managements to initiate worthwhile innovations in curriculum and pedagogy. Moreover, the evaluation system is uniformly imposed by the two pan-India and 31 state exam boards. How long will exam boards continue to prescribe room size, type of shoes and dimensions of the school bag? 

School managements these days are busy responding to the demands of external authorities. Their entire attention is focused on ‘finishing the course’ and for their students to perform well in board exams. Parents too, are obsessively concerned about that one sheet of paper — the exam marks sheet! Therefore in senior school, the drill is weekly tests, pressure to learn by rote, private tuition and coaching. Provision of holistic education also mandates co-curricular and sports education. But in reality, there’s little time for co and extra-curricular education.

Claims are regularly made by government agencies that they have initiated steps to find solutions. However, only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. Ask a teenager ‘how is life?’ and the response is unlikely to be cheerful. Bear in mind this is the fate of students in good and average schools.

Reflect on the fate of the majority of children who study in schools without basic facilities — laboratories and libraries — and in the absence of qualified teachers in adequate numbers. The reality of K-12 education is that millions of children pass practical examinations without labs. In such conditions, it’s futile to expect that talent in areas like painting, music, dance, drama, poetry and other creative pursuits could bloom on a meaningful scale. 
Contemporary India hosts schools that compare on equal terms with the best anywhere internationally. But it also has schools which would shock foreign educators. Products of Indian schools have brought laurels to the country and their contributions to NASA and Silicon Valley make the hearts of Indians swell with pride. But this can’t justify the failure to provide fulsome education to all children irrespective of their socio-economic or cultural status. The existing education system has dismally failed to deliver acceptable quality education to all children. Therefore, there’s no alternative but to seriously consider decentralisation of the school system and greater autonomy for schools. 

With enrolments in private schools likely to cross 50 percent shortly, resistance to ‘babu raj’ in government schools is increasing. It’s time to acknowledge that a large number of private entrepreneurs have entered K-12 education with noble intentions, and they possess the motivation and understanding to experiment and innovate. They need to be encouraged to set standards and benchmarks, and given opportunities to develop alternative strategies for public education. State agencies could learn from them.

 

(Prof. J. S. Rajput is former chairman of NCTE and NCERT)

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